A-level results are down AND the attainment gap has increased

material deprivation still affects educational achievement!

The A-level exam boards in England decided to smackdown the 2023 A-level results this year. They are now back to the pre-pandemic levels of 2019.

line chart showing trends in A-level results 2019 to 2023, England and Wales.

For the top A and A* grades the trend looks like this:

  • 2019: 25.2%
  • 2021: 35.9%
  • 2023: 26.5%

So a slight, but not significant increase in top A-level grades in 2023 compared to 2019.

This clearly demonstrates that the 2020 and 2021 results were fantasy results. This is unsurprising given that they were awarded by teachers. The 2022 results, based on pre-release exams, were merely a half way step back to this years. Last years results now seem as ridiculous as the 2020 and 2021 results. Clearly this was an attempt to maintain credibility in the exam system by not bringing back down the results too suddenly.

None of this is the fault of the students, it’s the fault of the people running the education system. You might even argue the government and exam boards did the best they good faced with the uncertainty of the pandemic.

The problem now is that this year’s cohort are the real victims of this uncertainty and flawed responses. They are now the ones with the relatively worse grades. They now face huge competition to get into scarce university places. And they are the ones that had their schooling disrupted just as much as the previous three years of students.

What a mess!

One saving grace

The one saving grace of all this is that we can probably regard this years exam results as valid JUST FOR THIS COHORT.

What I mean by this is that individuals who achieved A grades this year are probably better at exams than those who achieved C grades.

What you can’t do is compare this years results with 2020-2022. So we have a reliability problem!

  • 2019 A-levels measured students’ ability to sit exams under ‘normal conditions’ compared to previous years.
  • 2020 and 2021 measured how far teachers were prepared to take the p*** and give their students inflated grades based on their theories of what the maximum they could possibly achieve.
  • 2022 measured student’s ability to sit exams based on having pre-release knowledge of some the material they’d be assed on.
  • 2023 exam results measured students’ ability to sit exams under ‘normal conditions’ having had significant disruption to their schooling during the pandemic.

NB please note that by ‘better at exams’ that’s all I mean. A student’s ability to get an A* doesn’t necessarily mean they are more intelligent or a better potential employee than someone who gets a B grade.

The main reason for this (IMO) is that some students are better trained for exams than others. And exam training is a very narrow skill, intelligence more generally is a much broader concept.

The attainment gap has increased

The education attainment gap between private and state schools is now wider than it was before the pandemic. 47.4% of A-level entries from private schools were awarded A or A* grades compared to just 22% from state schools.

bar chart showing that schools in richer areas get better A-level results than poorer areas, England and Wales.

To my mind this suggests privately educated students have been more shielded from the disruptive effects of the pandemic over the last three years compared to state school students.

This makes sense given the material advantages these wealthy students have. Such as:

  • smaller class sizes
  • better access to online learning
  • private tuition.

Some of these resources would have been put into exam training of course, a key part of ‘hothousing’ private school children.

The attainment gap by region has also increased

If we breakdown regions in quintiles by deprivation we find that 30.3% of A-levels in the least deprived regions were awarded A and above compared to only 22.2 in the most deprived regions.

This means parental wealth and income affects educational achievement more generally. Private schools just have a more extreme advantage at the very top end. (Private schools account for around 7% of pupils, so 1/3rd of the top quintile.)

Relevance to A-level sociology

Unfortunately this shows that material deprivation still affects educational achievement.

To return to the homepage – revisesociology.com

Sources/ Find out More

The Guardian: Equality Depends on Education

TES: A-Level Results Reveal Worsening Rich-Poor Divide

FFT Education Data Lab: 2023 A-level Results

The Precariat

The precariat are generally in low-income, insecure employment, rent rather than own their own homes and have low levels of social and cultural capital.

The precariat refers to people living and working usually in a series of short-term jobs without recourse to stable occupational identities or careers, social protection or relevant protective legislation.

The variety of jobs the precariat does varies enormously as this can include any type of agency work such as cleaning, or factory work, anyone working on a zero-hours contract doing delivery work for the likes of Amazon or Sports Direct and also technically self-employed ‘gig-economy’ workers such as Uber drivers or anyone working for Deliveroo.

The precariat from the Great British Class Survey

The precariat includes a mixture of local people and migrants and the average age profile of this class is 50, according the Great British Class Survey.

Incomes are usually low for people in the Precariat, and crucially incomes are often not secure, meaning that people can go without work for days, weeks or even months and may have to periodically supplement their (lack of) income with benefits.

This class is also the least likely to own their own homes, the most likely to rent and they have the lowest levels of cultural and social capital.

The term Precariat links its members vulnerability to their structural location in society and the structural instability of a global labour market. It recognises that there is mobility and overcomes the idea of them being fixed outside ot the class system.

The precariat includes benefit claimants, most of whom claim temporarily in between periods of precarious short term work, the kind of work that is increasing rapidly in neoliberal Britain, and increasingly less of a stepping stone to more secure and better paid employment.

Many members of the precariat are caught in a cycle of entrapment: they are unable to find work which is long term enough and with prospects of progression for them to gain skills and progress up the career and income ladder, rather they move from one low-status job to a period of no job and then back into another low-status job.

The Underclass: misleading and derogatory

Charles Murray famously developed the concept of the ‘Underclass’ in the 1980s to designate a group of people beneath the class system and excluded from the social mainstream.

According to Murray the main features of the Underclass were a long-term dependency on benefits which spanned across generations such that younger people were socialised into an anti-work, high-crime and teen-pregnancy culture.

Research in the UK has shown that the existence of the Underclass is a myth, mainly because very few benefits claimants claim benefits long term, most are in either part-time or intermittent employment and claim to top-up their small incomes or short-term between periods of unemployment, so there is no group of people beneath the class system.

However the mainstream media has a long history of perpetuating the myth that there is a ‘dangerous class’ of poor people who are work shy, criminal and abuse the benefits system.

When the Great British Class Survey was conducted, for example, there were a lot of documentaries about benefits claimants such as Benefits Street which reinforced the idea that there was an underclass of lazy, determined welfare spongers.

The Precarait/ (mislabelled) Underclass are also loathed and laughed at by some in other sectors of the population, and we see this most obviously through the derogatory use of the Chav label.

The Precariat are seen as old fashioned, rigid and inflexible, and their ways of being are devalued, with many people believing that foreigners are better at filling low paid jobs in Britain rather than poor lazy British people.

It maybe because of the breaking down of the clear class boundaries between middle and working class that we denigrate the poor with more vigour – as if rallying against the bottom unites the rest of us and shores up our own identity as not one of them.

Culture, Identity and the Precariat

Despite the fact that many of the negative associations are due to right-wing bigotry and media stereotyping, the precariat know they are looked down on and they would rather stay among their own which unfortunately makes it more likely that the Precariat do, indeed, become something of an isolated and segregated class.

Many in the Precariat manage this by close identification with the local and through complicated and voracious notions of belonging which may manifest in what they wear, what they like and strong connection to their local communities.

The Precariat are so painfully aware of the level of social shame associated with their class that only 1% of Great British Class Survey respondents were from the Precariat, besides them making up 15% of the population. They wanted to avoid a process that involved putting them at the bottom.

The precariat have the lowest levels of cultural capital, they have a lot less knowledge about ‘high’ culture especially and would rather NOT go out to public venues to conspicuously consume such cultural products.

Rather they prefer to engage in activities either at home with close friends and families or in their local communities: cultural activities are more about the people less about social display.

Signposting and Sources

This material should be relevant to anyone studying the culture and identity option as part of their A-level in sociology.

This post was summarised from Savage (2015) Social Class in the 21st Century.

To find out more about the Precariat you might like to do the Great British Class Survey.

To return to the homepage – revisesociology.com

Social Class and Identity

To what extent do people of different social class backgrounds identify with their objective social class position and feel as if they share anything in common with people of the same class?

According to the Great British Class Survey (GBCS) there are seven objective social classes in Britain today, based on the amount of mainly economic but also cultural and social capital people have, which crucially has accumulated over time and is passed down the generations.

An individual’s objective class position impacts their life-chances but while most people can recognise the existence of social class and may recognise the class they are, most people today DO NOT consciously identify with that class position: they are more likely to be ambivalent about their own social class, and are unlikely to feel any sense of shared identity with those from the same objective class background.

This is especially true for those in the middle of the social class scale: there is widespread uncertainty around working and middle class identities, but the Elite class are more likely to see themselves as ‘elite’ and the precariat more likely to recognise that they have been labelled as such by wider society, but seek to distance themselves from that label.

Only 32% identify with a social class and the proportion rises the higher up the social class ladder you go, which is a sort of inversion of class consciousness.

  • 50% of the elite identify as elite.
  • 25% of the precariat identify as working class.

Of those who do did identify:

  • 25% of people identify as upper middle class
  • 41% identify as Middle Working Class
  • 62% identify as Working Class.

So people shy away from identifying as middle class: People are most likely to identify as being ‘somewhere in the middle’ irrespective of where they fall in the objective class structure.

This post with take a brief look at the history of social class identification in Britain before exploring social class identities in contemporary British society, looking at ‘elite’ identity, working and middle class identities, and the Pecariat.

A Brief History of Class identification in Britain

Historians have shown that class awareness has a long history in Britain. Compared to other nations it is the persistence of working class identities that stands out.

In Britain the early onset of capitalist agriculture in the sixteenth century produced a large group of wage-earning farmers who also moved into part-time handicrafts to supplement their incomes.

Thus even before the industrial revolution there were a lot of independent skilled and unskilled trades people in Britain, and this cross fertilised with the socialist and labour movements in the 19th century, producing a strong shared identity.

In contrast to this was the British upper class which was not shattered through revolution as was the case in France. The British upper classes pursed a form of ‘gentlemanly capitalism’ which was embedded in industrialism and colonialism and they prospered through innovation and free-trade enterprise.

The expanding middle class of businessmen, managers and white collar workers existed in an uncertain position in the middle of the aloof upper classes and proud working classes, and they were in a sort of mediating position between the two.

The franchise being extended in 1832, 1867 and 1885 to gradually incorporate more of the middle classes did something to distinguish the middle classes from the working classes who still could not vote.

Gradually throughout the 19th century the middle classes engaged in conspicuous consumption to differentiate themselves from the working classes below them, but their position remained somewhat uncertain and insecure.

During the 19th century the class position of women was even more ambiguous than that of men. Women’s occupations consisted of mainly domestic work (such as cleaning) for upper-middle class and upper class families, nursing and teaching. They thus occupied either working class positions in closer contact with higher classes compared to men, or lower-middle class positions which didn’t command the same status as men.

For much of the 20th century there was a preoccupation with who was working class and who was middle class, further fuelled by the changing nature of work during that period.

The work of George Orwell is a good indication of the fascination and complexities surrounding understanding class in the early 20th century.

Elite class identity

Britain’s ordinary class elite is the top 6% of society who have the highest levels of economic, cultural and social capital. They are most likely to own their own homes (a crucial source of wealth) and be in high income professional occupations such as law, finance and journalism.

Britain’s ordinary class elite are most likely to positively identify as ‘elite’, although they also tend to ‘play down’ how important their enormous amounts of economic, social and cultural capital have been in providing them with better life chances, preferring to delude themselves that their success is purely down to their hard work and talent.

While Britain’s ordinary class elite makes up only 6% of the population, they made up 25% of the British Class Survey sample. They were queuing up to do this in droves, and Savage (2015) suggests this is because the survey was a self-legitimating activity for them: it was a chance to get quantitative/ scientific/ objective confirmation that they were at the top of British society.

And this class were the most likely to share their class status to social media, suggesting again positive identification with and a sense of pride in their social class status. However, they usually did this with a sense of irony or humour, in an attempt to distract from the bragging aspect.

The elite don’t really identify with everyone from the same class: they tend to identify more with people in similar occupations and in their local neighbourhoods: so those with similar value properties, they also tended to stress that they had some friends outside of the elite too to demonstrate that they weren’t living in an isolated social class bubble.

It is very important to recognise that NOT actively recognising that their elite status is important is the primary means whereby this class maintain their dominance. They benefit from high levels of cultural, economic and social capital, but in playing down the existence of these advantages, they help to keep such advantages hidden, but the GBCS revealed just how obvious such advantages were in keeping this class and their children at the top of British society.

Working and Middle Class Identities

The traditional view of class is that people would identify with their objective class position. This was the view of THOMPSON: the working classes would unite in tight knit working class communities and come together around collective political campaigns for labour interests. However, in the 21st century there is a more muted, individualised and complex set of class identifications.

The GBSC found that people were ambivalent about class, preferring to say that they straddle middle class and working class boundaries.

Class is not important as a badge for most people, but its mention does prompt emotional reactions, especially negative ones. People wanted to avoid the labels of CHAV or as someone who has ‘middle class problems’.

People also felt a sense of shame if they were from a lower social class background but had not climbed the class ladder.

People shy away from identifying as middle class. They were most likely to identify as being ‘somewhere in the middle’ irrespective of where they fall in the objective class structure.

Identity among the Precariat

The Precariat were well aware of the negative labels attached to them by the mainstream media and the widespread dislike of them by many in mainstream society.

They were the most reluctant to take part in the GBSC, probably because they had little to gain from doing it: they didn’t want to take part in what was effectively ritual humiliation the end result of which was receiving a formal label which placed them at the bottom of the social class scale.

In terms of identity, the Precariat didn’t positively identify as Precariat, and had no interest in shouting about their low social status (unlike many members of the elite) and they were reluctant to even talk about social class, preferring instead to identify in other ways, such as with other members of their local community or through using other markers such as gender.


Savage, M (2015) Social Class in the Twenty First Century.

Britain’s New Ordinary Class Elite

The top 6% of the UK population by wealth and income make up a new elite class who also have the most cultural and social capital

In Britain today, there is an ordinary wealth elite who make up the top 6% of the population by wealth. Their mean household income is £89 000 and the average values of their homes £325 000. They have average savings of £142 000.

These figures mean they have wealth and income more than double that of the next class down on the Great British Class Survey, and they have got there by reaping the rewards of steady accumulation of their capital assets. The rise of rentier incomes from second homes forms a significant part of this.

Among the elite, meritocratic justification about wealth ran deep. They tended to stress that their success, income and wealth reflected their hard work, rather than it being down to the advantages they had because of the generations of accumulated cultural, social and economic capital they had benefitted from.

Others played down their wealth by positioning themselves in a relative sense, pointing out they were not as well off as their friends, and some deflected the issue by pointing out ‘accidental accumulation’: house prices having increased so much in London and the South East for example.

However, the top 6% do not see themselves as united, but are more aware of their differences There are fractures as well as solidarity at the top. In other words, the upper class layer is not a coherent and cohesive group but rather a scene of internal contestation between those with the most resources.

Cultural Capital and the Elite Class

The contemporary class elite defies traditional ‘upper class’ presumptions. It is a differentiated and heterogeneous formation which lacks a unitary defining feature.

Its cultural motifs vary and its members conform to a highbrow norm, although they are the most likely to express a preference for opera, classical music and so on.

While the traditional elite of the past marked their distinction by selectively consuming only the visible prestigious forms of culture, members of today’s elite are also in tune with contemporary and popular culture.

Occupational diversity also makes up part of this constellation. There is no unitary group to be found among the wealth class. Different professions such as business, law, academia, media and science compete with each other to assert their authority in the public domain.

These elite occupational blocs may have distinctive cultures of their own and so form niches, and this is especially true for some of the older professions such as architecture and law.

In spatial terms London is where the elite class predominately live. Having a relationship to the London scene and being prepared to work in London are essential. There are also regions within London, niches dependent on property prices.

You don’t necessarily have to have been born in London, but living close to it and being familiar with its geography are important.

There are also cultural elite bubbles in places such as Hampstead and Hackney and a legal elite around Waterloo station for example.

The elite class and meritocracy

The ordinary elite class strongly believe they got to where they are through meritocratic means, through their own hard work and effort, and they often contrast themselves to those who are not, like them, hardworking, but we shouldn’t take these beliefs at face value.

While it is true that they often got into their current high paying jobs by performing well in the education system and then succeeding in the cut throat professions they have also benefitted from their parents’ economic, cultural and social capital.

Many of them went to private schools and Shamus Khan has pointed out that private education is today about imparting the ‘meritocratic skills and practices’ that are required to get ahead in corporate and professional jobs. Ironically because these skills are taught most effectively in fee-paying private schools this means this is NOT meritocratic.

However there is still recruitment to this class from the outside: 25% come from comprehensives.

Elite universities play a role in separating out the very top professions: a boundary separates those who went to Oxbridge from the even those who attended Russel group universities.

The ordinary elite is not very glamorous nor glittering or self-recruited. It is not socially closed. However, people do have to perform to join it. They have to display knowingness, it is hard work being a member of the ordinary elite!

The Elite and the GBCS

The elite were more likely to do the Great British Class Survey. Despite making up only 6% of the objective class structure, 21% of the sample doing the GBCS were from the elite class.

Due to technocratic confidence they have the intellectual confidence and interest to take part, and taking part was a chance to obtain the private gratification that they had made it to the top.

They saw doing the survey as self-affirming, as a chance to have their elite status confirmed and flocked to it in disproportionate numbers, and the GBCS obliged them by awarding them with an ‘elite coat of arms’.

picture of the elite class summary from the great british class survey

Many of them then flocked to Twitter to communicate their ‘official’ elite status to the world. One example:

‘According to new #bbcclass survey I am elite. Nice to see a long-obvious reality reflected in hard data at last. Knee! Bow! And so on…’

What this (representative) tweet shows us is that the elite wanted to boast about their now socially recognised status, but dressed it up in a tongue in cheek way with humour to deflect away from this bragging.

It was also as if doing the survey gave this group a kind of scientifically based legitimacy to brag about their status: rather than them judging themselves as ‘elite’ the survey had done it for them, so all they are doing here (apparently) is stating ‘facts’.

This material was summarised from Savage (2015) Social Class in the 21st Century.

This material is relevant throughout A-level sociology but especially relevant to the Culture and Identity module.

To return to the homepage – revisesociology.com

A Brief History of Class identification in Britain

A brief summary of how the middle and working classes emerged and changed from the 17th to early 20th centuries.

Historians have shown that class awareness has a long history in Britain. Compared to other nations it is the persistence of working class identities that stands out.

In Britain the early onset of capitalist agriculture in the sixteenth century produced a large group of wage-earning farmers who also moved into part-time handicrafts to supplement their incomes.

Thus even before the industrial revolution there were a lot of independent skilled and unskilled trades people in Britain, and this cross fertilised with the socialist and labour movements in the 19th century, producing a strong shared identity.

In contrast to this was the British upper class which was not shattered through revolution as was the case in France. The British upper classes pursed a form of ‘gentlemanly capitalism’ which was embedded in industrialism and colonialism and they prospered through innovation and free-trade enterprise.

The expanding middle class of businessmen, managers and white collar workers existed in an uncertain position in the middle of the aloof upper classes and proud working classes, and they were in a sort of mediating position between the two.

The franchise being extended in 1832, 1867 and 1885 to gradually incorporate more of the middle classes did something to distinguish the middle classes from the working classes who still could not vote.

Gradually throughout the 19th century the middle classes engaged in conspicuous consumption to differentiate themselves from the working classes below them, but their position remained somewhat uncertain and insecure.

During the 19th century the class position of women was even more ambiguous than that of men. Women’s occupations consisted of mainly domestic work (such as cleaning) for upper-middle class and upper class families, nursing and teaching. They thus occupied either working class positions in closer contact with higher classes compared to men, or lower-middle class positions which didn’t command the same status as men.

For much of the 20th century there was a preoccupation with who was working class and who was middle class, further fuelled by the changing nature of work during that period.

The work of George Orwell is a good indication of the fascination and complexities surrounding understanding class in the early 20th century. The Road to Wigan Pier is an especially good example of this!

Signposting and related posts

For an introduction to social class from the 20th century onwards, please see this post: an introduction to social class.

This material was summarised from Savage (2015) Social Class in the 21st Century.

Speech patterns and educational achievement

restricted and elaborated speech codes explain social class differences in achievement.

Speech and language are important aspects of communication and a child’s ability to learn is related to their ability to communicate effectively with adults and other children.

A child with more developed speech and language skills can learn faster than those with less developed skills, and thus will have better educational achievement.

Moreover a child’s ability at language (in English Language key stage tests, for example) is in fact a measure of their level of educational achievement, so in one respect, a child’s ability to communicate (at least in formal tests) is the same as their level of educational attainment!

This post summarises and evaluates Basil Bernstein’s work on speech patterns.

Speech patterns

Basil Bernstein (1) developed the theory that there are two different types of speech patterns, or speech codes: the restricted code and the elaborated code, the later having a wider vocabulary and more complex grammatical structures than the former.

He theorised that the working classes were largely limited to speaking in the restricted code, while the middle classes used both the elaborate and restricted codes, and that the limited use of the restricted code by working class children explained their relative underachievement in education compared to middle class children.

A comparison of the restricted and elaborated speech code

The restricted speech code

Bernstein stated that restricted speech codes are characterised by ‘short, grammatically simple, often unfinished sentences’.

This code has limited use of adjectives or adverbs and meanings are often conveyed by gesture and voice intonation.

The restricted code tends to operate in terms of particularistic meanings – it is usually linked to a specific context and utterances only make sense to people in that immediate context.

It is a sort of short hand between close friends or partners that have a shared understanding of a social situation such that there is no need to spell out meanings in any great detail.

The elaborated speech code

Elaborated speech code has a wider vocabulary and uses more complex grammatical structures than the restricted code.

It provides more in-depth explanations of meanings than the restricted speech code does and thus operates in terms of universalistic meanings: listeners do not need to be embedded in a specific context to fully understand what is being communicated.

To illustrate the difference between the two speech codes consider a cartoon strip of four pictures:

  1. Some boys playing football
  2. The ball breaking a window
  3. A woman looking out of the window and a man shaking his fist
  4. The boys running away.

A middle class child speaking the elaborated code would be able to describe the pictures in such a way that you wouldn’t need the pictures to fully understand the story, everything would be explained in detail. The explanation here would be free of the context, universal!

A working class child speaking the restricted code would refer to the pictures so that you would need to see the pictures to understand the story. The explanation here would remain dependent on the context.

Speech patterns and educational attainment

Formal education is conducted in the elaborated speech code, so working class kids are automatically at a disadvantage compared to middle class kids.

The elaborated code is necessary to make generalizations and to be able to understand higher order concepts.

Bernstein found that middle class children were much more able to classify things such as food into higher order categories such as vegetables, or meats, for example. Working class kids were more likely to classify them according to personal experiences such as ‘things mum cooks for me’.

Evaluations of Bernstein

His concept of social class is too vague. Sometimes he refers to the working class, others he talks about the lower working class. He also puts all non-manual workers into ‘middle class’ thus ignoring variation between the middle classes.

Bernstein also provides only limited examples of the two types of speech code. He does not make a convincing case that either of them actually exist in reality!

Labov (1973) criticized Bernstein for alluding to the elaborated code being superior, whereas in reality working class and middle class speech are just different, it is only the cultural dominance of the elaborated code in education that makes it seem superior.


The language of African Americans and White Americans can be very different, but it is historically Anglo-American English which is taught as standard English in schools.

Thus African American pupils in the USA have had a particularly negative experience of language in school, often experiencing school as a linguistically and culturally alienating environment.

Rather than their children feeling alienated, some activists adopted ‘Ebonics’ (the language of African Americans) as a medium of instruction, celebrating their linguistic heritage and pointing out differences with the ‘standard’ Anglo-American English.

Ebonics has highlighted the following:

  • it has indicated the extent to which language plays a role in educational success or failure.
  • It raised questions about the appropriateness of standard English in assessments.
  • It highlighted cultural tensions between several minority pupils in schools and the school curriculum.

This topic is relevant to the sociology of education, especially the issue of social class differences in educational achievement.


(1) Bernstein (1971) Class, Codes and Control, Volume 1.

Barlett and Burton (2021): Introduction to Education Studies, fifth edition

Part of this post was adapted from Haralambos and Holborn (2013) Sociology Themes and Perspectives 8th Edition.

The Great British Class Survey

The GBCS found seven ‘objective’ social classes based on economic, cultural and social capital. However, most people do not identify with these social classes!

The results of the Great British Class Survey (GBCS) were first published in 2013 based on a sample of 161 000 responses.

The survey used a range of questions to measure three types of Capital:

  • economic capital (wealth and income, especially housing wealth)
  • cultural capital (of which there are two types: highbrow and emerging)
  • social capital (who people know, and the status of who they know)

The survey drew heavily on the work of Bourdieu in its design. One of the key aims was to measure the three types of ‘capital’. This is because social class in Britain today is a matter of advantages that people have accumulated over decades, and even generations as economic, cultural and social capital are passed down to children.

The results of the survey were analysed using ‘latent’ class analysis to group responses into clusters of overlapping answers and revealed that are seven broad social class today as below:

  1. Elite (6% of the population): the most privileged class in Great Britain who have high levels of all three capitals which sets them apart from all other classes. Typical jobs include lawyers, doctors and higher-level managers. Much of their wealth is in property (they are typically home owners), and their income and wealth are double that of the next class down. Also one of the oldest classes in terms of age with an average age of 57.
  2. Established Middle Class (25% of the population): members of this class have high levels of all three capitals although not as high as the Elite. They are a gregarious and culturally engaged class. Average age of 46.
  3. Technical Middle Class (6%): a new class with high economic capital but seem less culturally engaged. They have relatively few social contacts and so are less socially engaged. Average age of 52.
  4. New Affluent Workers (14%): this class has medium levels of economic capital and higher levels of cultural and social capital. They are a young and active group with an average aged of 44.
  5. Emergent Service Workers (15%): a new class which has low economic capital but has high levels of ‘emerging’ cultural capital and high social capital. This group are the youngest class with an average age of 32 and are often found in urban areas.
  6. Traditional Working Class (19%): this class scores low on all forms of the three capitals although they are not the poorest group. The oldest class with an average age of 66.
  7. Precariat (15%): the most deprived class of all with low levels of economic, cultural and social capital. These are the most likely to rent and will typically be in unskilled temporary jobs, with an average age of 50.

Key findings from the Great British Class Survey

  • The elite class, the top 6% is far removed in terms of economic, cultural and social capital from all the other classes. For example, they are twice as wealthy on average as the next class down. 22% of respondents in the GBCS were from this class.
  • The elite are happier to identify as elite than other classes: they recognize themselves as distinct.
  • The precariat is also distinct from the other 6 classes: they are much more likely to rent rather than be home owners and much less likely to know someone in the elite class.
  • The other five classes are less distinct, and there is ambivalence among respondents about whether they are working or middle class: more than 60% of respondents were reluctant to identity with a social class.
  • Age plays an important role in determining class, mainly because of property ownership: most people in the elite are over 50, most people in the technical middle classes are much younger.
  • Mike Savage (2015) saw the GBCS as an act of symbolic violence against the Precariat: only 1% of respondents were precariat, they were reluctant to do the survey because they saw it as an act of labelling them as inferior; the elite flocked to do the survey and then tweeted about their status afterwards: for them it was an act of class-affirmation.

Ambiguous Class Identities

The results of the survey give us a set of ‘objective’ class positions, however in terms of identity very few people identified with their own social class position.

The elite were most likely to identify as elite and think of themselves as superior, however they tended to play down the significance of money in their lives and emphasise the people they knew from different classes and the eclectic tastes they had rather than just ‘highbrow tastes’ .

This mirrors how cultural and social capital work: their importance is played down and not spoken about, they confer silent and subtle advantage on the children of the elite, but they themselves attribute their success to meritocracy and hard work.

‘Lower down’ the social class order more than 60% of people didn’t identify with a social class at all. People today are reluctant to identify with social class because of the negative labels associated with social class: Chavs for the working classes and #middleclassproblems for the middle classes.

There was also a significant tendency for people to identify themselves as being ‘somewhere in the middle’ of the social class scale: rich and poor alike tended to say ‘I am somewhere in the middle’, possibly people tended to compare themselves with people of a similar age, or with people in their local community rather than social class.

In the lowest social classes, especially the Precariat, people recognised the economic constraints on their lives and how these limited life chances but they were reluctant to take part in the survey because they knew it would label them as inferior.

The rest of this post provides an overview of Bourdieu’s cultural class analysis and then summarises the findings of the survey for economic, cultural and social capital.

Bourdieu’s cultural class analysis

Class is fundamentally tied up with inequality, but not all economic inequalities are about class. For example, if someone wins £10 million on the National Lottery, this does not automatically propel them into the elite or upper classes.

What determines someone’s class goes beyond one single transaction. If that same lottery winner invested their money in stocks or set up a business and sent their children to private school, we might then, several years afterwards, start to talk of them having moved up the social class hierarchy.

According to Bourdieu, social classes are fundamentally associated with the accumulation of advantages over time, a view which reflects the trajectory of his own life as he was born the son of a rural French postal worker and ended his career as an illustrious professor at an elite university.

He was interested in the symbolic power of class and the shame and stigma that were bound up with forms of domination. For him class was associated with how some people feel ‘entitled’ and others ‘dominated’, thus recognising the cultural elements to social class.

Bourdieu saw class privilege as being tied up with access to ‘capital’ which he defined as having ‘pre-emptive rights over the future’. Some resources allow people the ongoing capacity to enhance themselves and the processes associated with the uneven distribution of resources are crucial.

In the words of Bourdieu himself: ‘Capital, in its objectified or embodied forms takes time to accumulate and has a tendency to persist, so that everything is not equally possible.’

For Bourdieu it is essential that we understand class historically rather than as a series of transactions as snapshots in time; in any one moment we come to social life with different endowments, capacities and resources, and thus social classes are historically forged.

Thus life-chances (such as your chance of getting into a good university) are NOT like playing roulette. In roulette two individuals place a bet, one on black and one of red, both have an equal chance of winning. And if they do so for another round, they have an equal chance of winning again. The odds are reset to the same after each round. Who wins in round two is NOT affected by who won in round one.

With economic (and cultural) capital whoever wins round 1 (generation 1) passes on a greater chance of winning to whoever bets with them on round 2 (their children)

Cultural Capital

Economic capital is one important form of capital Cultural capital is another.

Cultural capital is a form of inheritance, associated with educational qualifications. Well-educated parents pass on to their children to capacity for them to succeed in education and get qualifications to get them into the best jobs. This is not a direct inheritance but a probabilistic one.

Cultural capital is passed on, but in a opaque way, dressed up in the language of meritocracy and hard work, and thus its existence is denied. This opacity is part of how it works, because it makes it impossible to challenge.

This is like gift economics in gift-based societies: gift-giving tacitly demands reciprocation at some point in the future, and is, in reality, about someone with ore capital (the person able to give gifts) manipulating or dominating the person they give the gift to, because by doing so everyone knows they owe the gift-giver something.

Yet this is never spoken about, and it appears that the gift-giving is voluntary and altruistic, and the maintenance of this narrative-myth in public is key to the gift-giver maintaining their power.

According to Bourdieu, to accept the gift as a gift is a form of symbolic violence, it is an acceptance of domination, but as soon as we refuse to see gifts as voluntary and altruistic, they become a form of domination or manipulation.

This is similar to they way in which cultural capital works: in reality middle class parents pass on their higher level academic skills and ‘highbrow’ cultural tastes to their children and THIS is what gives them an unfair advantage and helps them be more successful, but in public we DO NOT TALK about this, instead we prefer to believe that it is simply the hard work of the middle class children that accounts for their success.

Social capital works along similar lines to both cultural and economic capital: the upper middle classes have more contacts their children can use later on in life to get them jobs in, for example, hospitals, law firms, and finance firms.

Capital accumulations and social class

These three forms of capital: economic, cultural, and social take decades to accumulate, they are the result of careful accumulation over the lifespan of parents, who then pass them on to their children, who pass them on to their children and so on.

For those born with little or no capital, it is very difficult to catch up all on your own. It can be done, but you have a long way to go compared to the children of the upper middle classes.

Economic capital

Britain is more unequal than most comparable nations and 78% of Britons are in favour of some forms of redistribution, but when it comes to viewing their own lives, people do not straightforwardly place themselves as winners or losers despite this intense inequality.

Simply noting that Britain is unequal and is getting more unequal tells us nothing of how people experience these inequalities. Economic divisions stamp themselves in complex ways in people’s identities.

Based on interviews with the Great British Class Survey, people in very different economic circumstances all place themselves in the middle, but if you dig down into it ‘being in the middle’ has different meanings depending on their objective position in the economic class structure.

In general, those with modest amounts of money are aware of how a relative lack of money has shaped their life in the past and continues to constrains their life in the present.

Whereas those with money tend to downplay the importance of it. Those who have money report caring less about it. They are able to stand back from the brute power of money itself.

People do not want to show off, nor do they want to recognise the shame and stigma of being at the bottom. Yet despite this, economic inequalities are central in shaping people’s lives.

Wealth inequalities and social class

Britain has got a lot wealthier in the 20th and 21st centuries, so much so that income from employment in the present is increasingly overshadowed by the influence of wealth accumulated from the past.

The absolute gap between the top 1% and bottom 50% by wealth increased threefold from 1976 to 2005.

The absolute increase in wealth is divisive: it means that those who start today with no wealth have a larger hill to climb in order to reach the top and this makes breaking social inequality difficult.

Bringing wealth into an analysis of social class has three major implications:

  1. It makes us realise that income is not the only, or even the main way economic capital influences people’s lives.
  2. The gap is getting bigger, so it is harder for people at the bottom to climb the ladder.
  3. Wealth is accumulated, and so your parent’s wealth matters – we need to understand class in terms of transfer of resources from young to old

The power of income inequalities

According to the Spirit Level Britain is a country of gross high income inequalities.

The Higher Managerial Class earns three times as much as those in routine manual occupations, but within the top class there is a group of especially well paid occupations such as CEOs, doctors, lawyers and financial intermediaries, and these occupations have pulled away from similar occupations which require similar education and skill levels.

The top 10% earn nearly 17 times as much as lowest 10%.

Is there a new aristocracy?

The GBSC shows us that there is a strong overlap between those who have extremely high incomes, savings and wealth.

In social terms those with the most economic capital are only slightly more likely to have degree-level qualifications. Those who have the most economic capital really do have the most privileged backgrounds.

The very wealthy also tend to have a strong awareness of themselves as either upper or upper-middle class, and they are more likely to identify as such.

Those with the most economic capital also have distinctive social and cultural characteristics too, they have more exclusive social networks.

House ownership and social class

One of the most important things which makes positioning oneself on an economic scale is whether one owns a house or not, something which is especially true for the over 50s, many of whom bought houses when they were much cheaper back in the 1990s.

There are many people, for example, who have had traditionally working class jobs for their entire lives, but by virtue of having bought a house in the ‘right area’ 30 years ago, are now sitting on property worth more than half a million, with no mortgage.

On the other hand there are also many people who have worked in traditionally middle class jobs but are sitting on cheaper properties with huge mortgages.

By way of an example: where would you place the following two people on the class scale?:

  • A builder with no qualifications earning £30K a year with a property worth £700K and no mortgage.
  • A teacher with two degrees earning £45K a year with a property worth £300K and paying £15K a year on their mortgage for the next decade?

These two examples demonstrate how difficult it is to place people on class scales today and show the complexity of class identities, and that’s just factoring in income and housing wealth, and before we even look at the cultural and social aspects of class identification.

looked at more broadly, owner-occupied housing is now thoroughly implicated in the accumulation of economic capital, creating a powerful categorical divide between those who are owners and those who are tenants.

The housing divide also tends to increase the significance of age and location in terms of social class divisions.

The meaning of economic capital revisited

People’s perceptions of economic inequality might not involve comparing themselves with those in other occupations but rather those in certain geographical locations or age.

In this way the effects of economic capital can be naturalised so that monetary differences are associated with a range of personal, social and spatial factors which may make them appear ‘natural’ in the minds of many.

The fact that it takes so long to accumulate economic capital is why people place their situation in the context of life histories rather than draw direct ‘relational’ contrasts with the wealthy or poor, and thus people see their economic fortunes tied up with their life histories rather than global economic forces.

In the minds of respondents property was a very important form of economic capital, especially as it could be passed onto the next generation.

The continued importance of economic capital

An increase in economic capital clouds the boundary further between working and middle classes and it means those at the top are further apart.

One cannot make simple judgements based on occupation alone. Economic capital especially housing has an impact – age and region.

We can only understand economic capital by recognising it is the result of long term accumulation. In every dimension the better off are more closely associated with historically resonant forces: social cultural or coming from a senior managerial background. Economic capital is about long term investments.

Finally, growing relative proportions in economic capital might reduce general awareness of where they stand in relation to other people. It’s not just about income and employment anymore: people compare themselves to those of a similar age and neighbours!

Cultural Capital: Highbrow and Emerging

Most people are aware that economic capital (wealth, especially housing today) are assets that can be accumulated and invested to give oneself and one’s children advantages in life.

However most people don’t think of cultural tastes and interests as being forms of capital, but for Bourdieu they are, and what matters is the extent to which one’s tastes and interests are seen as legitimate. There are countless cultural pursuits, but not all are valued equally.

For example, there is a widely held notion that classical music and literature, fine art, opera and have more legitimacy and value and show better taste than Big Brother and computer games.

Traditionally three factors have cemented the notion that ‘high culture’ is superior:

  1. High culture has been deeply promoted by the state through subsidies from bodies such as the Arts Council.
  2. The education system reinforces the idea that classical literature and music are superior.
  3. Cultural critics and other taste makers further reinforce the idea.

Social Engagement: the new divide

The GBCS believes that cultural capital still exists today but that it has changed its form.

We see this from a cultural mapping exercise which shows us which kinds of activities are NOT done together and from that we can see which are furthest apart and even in contrast from each other and a hierarchy emerges.

Cultural activities ACultural activities B
Liking fish and chipsGoing to the theatre
Eating out rarelyGoing to the gym
Not going to restaurantsGoing to rock gigs
Not liking pop musicPlaying sport
Disliking Indian foodGoing to art clubs
Not going out with friendsWatching live sport
Disliking jazzLiking French and Italian restaurants
Disliking world musicLiking world music
Not going for a walkGoing to museums and art galleries
Disliking reggae musicGoing to the opera and ballet

Cultural mapping shows us that it is more likely that your choice of activities will ALL come from one column in the table above rather than finding equal numbers of activities from both columns.

On the right hand side of the column, the activities involve going out into the world of public, cultural institutions, such as going to the theatre and eating out at restaurants and on the left hand side there is an aversion to these, and most readers would probably recognise there is subtle social pressure to view the activities on the right as more socially legitimate.

Those on the right are socially approved of and supported, those on the left abstain.

This is not quite the same as ‘high’ and ‘low’ culture because also on the right we find activities such as going to the gym and rock concerts.

Those who are well educated and have a high income tend to engage in pursuits on the right and vice versa, so cultural tastes do map onto social position. The activities on the right require, in general a lot of money, those on the left do not.

For those on the left, they do not simply sit at home passively watching T.V. but their cultural activities are more likely to be informal, and kinship or neighbourhood based, done in private and with less of a public profile.

For those who engage in the activities on the right, it involves taking part in public life, they are more visible and this may lead to more confidence and assertiveness. They have more of a public profile.

Someone on the left may well be very culturally engaged, but they are more likely to play themselves down as lacking ‘culture’ as not being very informed. Those with lower income are more tentative about what good taste is as they tend to lack confidence.

Those with ‘good taste’ are more likely to be confident that their tastes are legitimate and may use this to ‘inflict’ their taste on others. They are sure they have ‘good taste’. They are at ease. They are much happier to communicate this conviction in public.

The secondary cultural divide: highbrow versus ’emerging’ cultural capital

Cultural mapping also reveals a second set of oppositional tastes and activities. Activities such as going to the opera, classical music and ballet correlate with disliking rap and popular music:

Cultural activities ACultural activities B
Liking fast foodGoing to the theatre
Being indifferent to classical musicDisliking pop music
Being indifferent to heavy metalGoing to stately homes
Liking rap musicLiking classical music
Liking vegetarian restaurants Disliking reggae music
Being indifferent to jazz musicDisliking rap music
Playing sportNot going to fast food restaurants
Not going for a walkDisliking rock music
Taking holidays in Spain Going to museums and art galleries
Watching live sportGoing to the opera and ballet

Those tastes and activities on the right are consistent with ‘highbrow taste’ and seems to support Bourdieu’s views on Distinction.

Those on the left who prefer such things as popular music are more likely to state they are ‘indifferent’ to classic music and so on.

Age is also a factor in this opposition, with younger people being more likely to fall into the left hand column, those with ‘highbrow’ tastes are more likely to be older. The average age of a Radio 3 listener is 62.

When we factor in both age and class, we see from this are two modes of cultural capital: ‘highbrow’ and ’emerging’.

  • Highbrow culture is more established, historically sanctioned and institutionalised in the education system, but is also an ageing mode of cultural capital.
  • Emerging is more hipster – adopted by the younger middle class – it has its own infrastructure in bars and on social media and sports and may be institutionalised in new professional workstyles which emphasise adaptability.

So with respect to cultural capital, younger people are not obviously disadvantaged compared to their elders: they partake in these new forms of cultural capital and are engaged.

People are also increasingly keen to express their eclectic tastes, the drawing of sharp boundaries was relatively rare, even among older respondents.

Sociologists in the USA have talked about the rise of the ‘cultural omnivore’ who is more culturally tolerant and less snobbish and more accepting of diversity. This is NOT what the GBCS reveals.

While the better off talked about their eclecticism there was a ‘knowingness’ about this diversity of engagement. For example, the elite tend to be very selective about which precise and particular ‘unusual’ aspects of popular culture they like, and explained in great depth why they like them.

They were off the cuff about their like of highbrow tastes, but had to legitimate their like of things falling outside this.

Emerging capital is thus not about liking popular culture per se, but rather demonstrating one’s skill in manoeuvring between the choices on the menu and displaying one’s careful selection of particular pop artists. Demonstrating WHY you liked something (in relation to your life) was as important as WHAT you liked.

Especially among the younger generation, no pop artist was out of bounds, but this was usually done with a lot of justification – exhaustively selective, even in terms of Burger King over McDonald’s.

In other words, emerging cultural capital is expressive, it is a performance.

For example on respondent: Henry said of his music tastes – ‘there is no cohesion at all’ and he was proud of this, but his play lists included such things as ‘obscure’ and ‘hopelessly poppy’. His collection of tastes was about having material to add to discussions in university halls.

You can consume ‘right pop music’ but also ‘wrong pop music’ in the right way by demonstrating an eclectic taste but a privileged understanding.

Ways of Seeing

There is a difference between activities which are immediate and sensuous and discerning.

Discernment is the ability to judge across genres and justify these: skills associated with education and professional jobs. These are not neutral skills and those who value them tend to denigrate immediate, sensual reactions.

There is a class differences in how things are enjoyed. The basis of a new snobbery.

Just getting lost in classical music at a sensual level is seen as inferior to engaging with it at a more highbrow level of appreciation: being stretched intellectually is seen as superior to merely being entertained.

The working classes are more likely to express just ‘getting lost in the music’ but for the middle classes, engaging in something just for pleasure was often tied up with guilt: being too knackered to do anything better after work, for example.

Cultural snobbery

Emerging cultural capital embeds its own form of subtle hierarchy.

People in higher class positions distance themselves from snobbery but they contradict themselves by showing a dislike of culture that was mass produced.

Reality TV and talent shows were frequently mentioned as things they didn’t like as was Bingo and certain fashion brands.

Responses to questions about such cultural tastes tended to start with a denigration of lifestyle (so not personal) but then moved on to a criticism of the people who liked them: such as audiences of reality shows being passive and easily duped by advertisers.

Towards the end of interviews, when they were more relaxed, the wealthier better-educated respondents often considered cultural tastes as powerful indicators of pathological identities, expressing even disgust.

They tended to commend themselves on their own flexibility and energy in choosing the ‘right’ cultural products, and in contrast saw those who watched shows such as the X factor as being lazy and non-discerning.

Cultural activities were not seen as just private enthusiasms, they brought with them social baggage.

Social Capital

Most of us understand the importance of networks in our lives, especially in the age of social media.

Most of us pride ourselves on having a wide range of social contacts, and especially for the elite it is seen as vulgar to stress that you only know other people from the elite, they stress the working class people they know.

However we are also aware of the strategic importance of knowing certain types of people.

Bourdieu’s conception of social capital is that it is something the privileged and powerful use to protect their interests and shut out those without social capital.

Three main findings from the GBCS about social capital were:

Social networks are not exclusive. Most people know someone a fundamentally different walk of life, so we do not live in a closed society.

However, there is a strong tendency for those in professional and managerial jobs to know people in similar jobs and the same is true for those in manual and routine jobs. People in the bottom quintile know just over one person in one of the elite 8 positions, for those in the top quintile, they know three.

The extremes are distinctive. The very wealthy are much more likely to know very advantaged people than everyone else, so these are more closed off. And those with no educational qualifications are much less likely to know those from other occupational clusters. The elite occupations are the most socially exclusive.

Social capital accumulates over time, and is passed down. Those with a parent ranking in the highest-status income earners know twice as many people in the elite professions compared to those whose parents belong to the routine manual class.

A Subtle shaping occurs: social capital determines who you socialise with, and how you think about your class position, but this is not immediately obvious in day to day life.

Social Class: the new landscape?

The interplay of economic, cultural and social capital generate the kinds of cumulative advantages and disadvantages which may fuse together in social classes more broadly.

Drawing links between these three kinds of capital is complicated because the three strands are organised on different principles.

Economic capital has accumulated massively in recent years, but it is difficult to see cultural and social capital accumulating in this sort of way. Technical innovation especially means people have more cultural and social capital than previously, but it is difficult to map this out because there is so much diversity, unlike with economic capital, which is more blunt.

Economic capital has been subject to more absolute accumulation, but with social and cultural capital the accumulation is more relative, in that people have become divided by different kinds of cultural interests and social ties.

We often fixate on where there is NOT a fit between these types of capital – such as with wealthy footballers or self-made working class millionaires, but Bourdieu tended to see these three types of culture as coinciding – there was a ‘homology’ between them, but the fit was never perfect.

The GBCS confirms Bourdieu’s view to an extent: it shows us that there are some common intersections between these three types of capital, but it is far from perfect, and age also has a significant impact on class location in the new class scale.

A new model of social class?

The responses to the GBCS were analysed using a model of ‘latent class analysis’ to group the three types of capital and show how they cluster.

The seven classes were then ranked according to their economic capital, the variable that is the most unevenly distributed.

The hierarchy here is not always that distinct, for example it is uncertain whether the new affluent workers should be placed higher or lower than the technical middle class.

The two most clearly differentiated classes are the elite and the precariat. These score highest and lowest on most of the measures of the three capitals.

The elite have incomes twice as high as any other class and by far the largest house values. They also have the highest amount of ‘highbrow’ capital, and extensive social networks. With the elite we see more of a ‘homology’ than with other classes.

At the bottom the Precariat refers to the precarious proletariat. This class has the lowest household income, little savings and is the most likely to rent property. It also ahs the fewest social ties, and least likely to know people in the elite. Its cultural capital is also more limited than other classes.

Signposting and Sources

This post was summarised from Mike Savage’s (2015) Social Class in the 21st Century.

You can do the Great British Class Survey here.

This material is essential for A-level sociology, especially any topic relevant to social class inequalities, and the culture and identity module.

To return to the homepage – revisesociology.com

Free School Meals for All London Pupils

All primary pupils in London schools are going to get Free School Meals from September 2023 according to an announcement from the Mayor of London on Monday.

This new policy will cost £130 million, save the average family £440 a year and benefit around 270 000 children.

In an interview on Radio 4’s Today programme (20/02/2023) Henry Dimbleby, former head of the government’s national food strategy, explained the benefits of universal free school meals and the ideological barriers which have prevented this policy being enacted at a national level.

Trials had been done under the Labour government way back in 2013 in some local authorities including Newham, Durham and Islington which revealed that providing universal free school meals to all pupils significantly improved the academic performance of children who had previously been on free school meals, but the the performance of ALL children improved.

Those who had previously been on free school meals saw the most academic improvement, one theory for this change being that when ALL pupils can access free school meals it changes the culture of the school, removing the stigma of poverty at mealtimes and thus makes poorer students feel more included.

What about the rich kids who don’t need free school meals?

All children already benefit from free education which includes access a whole range of other material resources such as text books, so adding on free school meals isn’t that big a deal!

There is also evidence that all children benefit from this policy and it closes the inequality gap: A more recent study from Sweden showed that the introduction of universal free school meals improved the lifetime income of poorer students by 6% and the richest people’s only rose by 2%

The biggest drag on our economy is long term sickness, and the biggest cause of this is poor diet.

Why don’t we have free school meals in England?

According to Henry Dimbleby the current Tory government are ideologically opposed to universal benefits and this is the main reason we do not have free school meals for every child in England and Wales.

Both Nick Clegg and Michael Gove were in favour of universal free school meals when we had a coalition government, but since then neoliberal ideology means the government isn’t prepared to find the money to care for the poorest children in society.


This material is relevant to the compulsory education aspect of the AQA’s first year of A-level sociology.

It is especially relevant to the topic of social class differences and education, as universal free school meals seem to be one of the most effective policies which can reducing the effects of material deprivation on educational achievement.

It is also a reminder of the continued harms of neoliberal education policy.

Sources/ Find out More

The Guardian (20/02/2023) London to offer free school meals to all primary pupils for a year.

Learning During Lockdown

students from independent schools did 7.4 hours more schoolwork per week during lockdown compared to students from state comprehensive schools.

Students from higher socio-economic backgrounds had significantly more support from their schools during lockdowns compared to students from lower economic backgrounds.

This is according to the latest findings from a contemporary longitudinal study (1) being carried by the Sutton Trust which is analysing the short and longterm consequences of the disruption suffered by students during the Covid lockdowns.

Social class differences in learning during lockdowns

Better of schools (in terms of FSM provision) were able to adapt much more quickly during Lockdown one to minimise disruption to student learning compared the most deprived schools.

Students attending independent schools (compared to state grammar and state comprehensive) and students attending the least deprived schools by FSM provision were more likely to receive online lessons during lockdowns; more likely to get more frequent online lessons; had more access to teachers outside of lessons; and suffered fewer barriers to learning such as lack of access to laptops at home.

By lockdown three the support offered to students by the more deprived schools had caught up with that of the least deprived schools, but significant differences remained.

For example, by lockdown three:

  • Students from the least deprived schools were doing 2.9 hours more schoolwork per week than students from the most deprived schools.
  • 71% of students from the least deprived schools reported having 3 or more online lessons per week compared to only 53% of students from the most deprived schools.
  • Only 6% of pupils from higher managerial backgrounds reported only having a mobile device (rather than a computer) to access learning compared to 14% of pupils from routine/ manual/ non-working backgrounds.  

Teacher contact during lockdowns

73% of students from independent schools reported having contact with teachers outside of lessons at least once a week during the first lockdown compared to only 43% of students from comprehensive schools. This gap had narrowed by the third lockdown with 77% of students from Independent schools and 52% of students from comprehensive schools reporting teacher contact.

Students from the most deprived quintile reported more teacher contact than those from the least deprived during the first lockdown and there was almost no reported variation during the third lockdown.

Hours of schoolwork during Lockdowns

Students from independent schools did almost twice as many hours schoolwork per week during the first lockdown compared to students from state comprehensive schools. The gap was narrower during the third lockdown with independent school students reporting 23.7 hours per week compared to 16.3 hours per week for comprehensive school children.

Pupils from the least deprived quintile did 3.2 hours more schoolwork per week during the first lockdown than pupils from the most deprived quintile and 2.9 hours more during the third lockdown.

Provision of online lessons during lockdowns

During the first lockdown 94% of independent schools provided online lessons compared to only 64% of state comprehensive schools. By the third lockdown state comprehensives had caught of a lot but there was still a large difference with 96% of independent schools providing online lessons compared to 87% of comprehensive schools.

By the third lockdown 95% of the least deprived schools (by FSM provision) were providing online learning compared to only 80% of the most deprived schools.

The above differences are significant but if we look at the amount of online learning which took place (immediately below) we find that independent schools and the least deprived schools were much more likely to provide MORE online classes…

How many online classes during lockdowns?

84% of pupils at Independent schools reported having more than three online lessons per day during the first lockdown, compared to only 33% of students from state comprehensive schools. The figures were 93% compared to 59% respectively during the third lockdown.

71% of students from the least deprived quintile reported having access to three or more online lessons a day during lockdown three compared to only 53% of students from the most deprived quintile.

NB this basically means that students attending the more deprived schools were more likely to get very little in the way of online learning, just one or two lessons a day, while students attending the better off schools were more likely to get three or more lessons, closer to a regular school day.

Barriers to learning during lockdowns by social class

Students faced several barriers to learning during lockdowns including:

  • Minimal provision of online lessons or, in some cases, no online lessons.
  • Internet connectivity problems.
  • Inability to access teachers during the lockdown periods.
  • Lack of access to desktop or laptop computers and having to rely on mobile devices.
  • Having to share a device with siblings.
  • A small percentage of students didn’t have any devices to access online learning
  • Lack of a quiet study space.
  • Parents who lacked the confidence to help students with learning during lockdowns

Students from lower social class backgrounds were more likely to suffer barriers to learning during lockdowns compared to students from higher social backgrounds.

For example 34% of students from higher and professional managerial backgrounds reported infrequent teacher contact during lockdowns compared to 39% of students from routine/ manual/ never worked backgrounds. The figures for having to share a device were 9% and 15% respectively for these two social classes.

Pupils without a device during lockdowns

Only 2% of pupils from independent schools reported not having access to a suitable device by lockdown three compared to 11% of pupils from state comprehensives.

5% of pupils from the least deprived backgrounds reported no access to a suitable device during lockdown three compared to 19% from the least deprived quintile.

Conclusions and policy implications…

15-18 year olds doing GCSEs and A-levels suffered just as much learning loss as younger students, and students from lower socio-economic backgrounds suffered proportionately more learning loss. Thus the pupil premium should be extended and paid out for 16-19 year olds for a couple of years. ATM Pupil Premium ends with year 11 students.  

By lockdown three 30% of all year 11s who needed a laptop had received one, which was significant. However, HALF of all students who lacked a laptop or didn’t have access to one during the pandemic still haven’t received one.


Cullinane, C., Anders, J., De Gennaro, A., Early, E., Holt-White, E., Montacute, R., Shao, X., & Yarde, J. (2022). Wave 1 Initial Findings – Lockdown Learning. COVID Social Mobility & Opportunities (COSMO) study  Briefing No. 1. London: UCL Centre for Education Policy and Equalising Opportunities & Sutton Trust. Available at: https://cosmostudy.uk/publications/lockdown-learning

Raymond Williams

Williams was a neo-marxist cultural theorist who argued that while economic structure and class position do influence culture, the economic base did not determine culture, and that people weren’t just passively subsumed by ruling class ideology.

Raymond Williams is one of the most influential cultural theorists of the modern era. He developed theories of culture from a broadly Marxist perspective, although he was critical of many aspects of traditional Marxism.

For the purposes of A-level sociology Williams is classified as a Neo-Marxist.

Culture and Society

In Culture and Society (1961) Williams criticised the traditional Marxist conception of economic base and superstructure and the relationship between them.

Williams argued that Marx and Engels mistakenly saw economic infrastructure as determining the superstructure (or culture), whereas in reality culture is much more complex and diverse and can change significantly even if the economic base remains the same.

Williams argued that a new Marxist theory of culture needed to take account of the relative autonomy of the superstructure from the economic base, seeing the economic base as ‘the guiding string on which a culture is woven’ rather than something which determined it in a fixed and predictable way.

Cultures were not the automatic product of economic structures, people respond to their class positions consciously and create their cultures actively, thus culture is much more dynamic than Marx and Engels believed was the case.

Williams also criticised Marxist cultural theorists such John Berger for having too narrow a focus purely on the arts. He argued that contemporary marxism should focus on the interdependence of all aspects of social reality and thus examine culture more broadly, treating culture as a ‘way of life’ rather than just focussing on art and literature.

Working class culture and bourgeoise culture

The working classes did not develop much art and literature during the industrial revolution but they did develop their own distinctive institutions and lifestyles.

Williams argued that the main basis for working class culture was a commitment to collective action because the working classes realised that they could not progress in life as individuals because the life chances of individuals were too restricted throughout the 19th century.

It follows that the key working class institutions which developed historically were trades unions, co-operatives and also the labour party which focussed on collective action for change.

Williams saw bourgeoise culture as more individualistic – the key defining aspect here being that members of the bourgeoisie sort success as individuals, in contrast to the collectivist culture of the working classes.

However Williams also argued that there was not a hard and fast dividing line between working class and bourgeois culture

Challenging the Dominance Ideology

There may well be a dominant ideology in a culture, but it also likely that there will be challenges to this dominant ideology.

Challenging ideologies can be either residual or emergent and either alternative or oppositional…

  • residual ideologies – are those of a declining culture, but which is still important in a society
  • emergent ideologies – the ideas of new social groups outside of the ruling class.

Residual and emergent ideologies can either be alternative or opposition

  • oppositional ideologies oppose the dominant ideology and may challenge it overtly.
  • alternative ideologies co-exist with the dominant ideology without challenging it

Hence for Williams the dominant ideology doesn’t necessarily impose itself on people and create a false consciousness.

In fact it is likely that several people in a culture will develop cultures of their own that challenge or overlap with the dominant ideology.

Evaluations of Williams

Williams work is an improvement over traditional Marxist theories of culture because it is less deterministic and recognises the active role individual humans play in creating their own cultures.

Postmodern theorists criticise Williams arguing that there is no such thing as working class culture today, and especially not a collectivist working class culture.

SignPosting and Relevance to A-Level Sociology

This material should be relevant to students studying the Culture and Identity option within the AQA specification.


Sources/ Find out More

Adapted from Haralambos and Holborn (2013) Sociology Themes and Perspectives, edition 8.

Raymond Williams: Wikipedia entry.

%d bloggers like this: